My lifelong career in this kind of emotional work started in high school. When I was 15, I thought no guy would ever like me, so it seemed incredible when I got together with a cute drummer, whose real name is something other than Greg. Within two weeks, he’d told me he loved me and painted an it’s-us-against-the-world picture of our relationship that I found very romantic. He wrote me love notes and gave me his favorite pair of pajamas so I’d feel close to him even when we slept apart. When he noticed my diary sticking out from under my bed one afternoon and asked to see it, I told him that he couldn’t, because it was too personal and embarrassing. What I was actually trying to do was prevent a fight, because that journal detailed all of my previous crushes, and I knew he hated the idea of me caring about any other guy, even before we met. “Nothing should be too personal for me you to share with me,” he said. “I’ve always told you everything.”
That night on the phone, he started in on the diary again: He said me we shouldn’t keep any secrets from one another, then he actually started crying. “I’ve shared so much with you, told you about all of my problems with all my friends and my family,” he said. “Please don’t hide things from me.” It broke my heart to think that I’d hurt him, so I stayed up all night, carefully removing pages and rewriting entries to present him with a version of my journal that wouldn’t start a fight. I literally EDITED MY LIFE to suit his moods. And I did this with everything, not just the journal. Greg decided who I could be friends with, what I could wear, and when we had sex. He told very convincing lies about the people I wasn’t supposed to like anymore to distance me from them. Once, he threw me over his shoulder, flipped my skirt up, and paraded me down a busy street after I got catcalled. He said it was a joke, but when I told him I didn’t find it funny, he said I’d brought it upon myself, because my short skirt and fishnets were “inappropriate” to wear in front of anyone but him. He threatened to break up with me if I didn’t have sex with him whenever he wanted, because if I didn’t want to have sex, it meant I didn’t love him anymore. He threatened to kill himself if he ever lost me. Although I didn’t know it at the time, none of this made Greg a “hopeless romantic.” It made him emotionally and sexually abusive.
We were at his house, near the end of the school year, when he told me he wanted to see other people. I was so in shock that I don’t remember the tears coming until he said, “I know we’ll end up together. This is just a break. And even though we won’t be together, we can still…you know.” He pushed me against the wall and kissed me hard. His hand shot up my shirt. I knew he wanted to have sex with me. I’d let him do it without a condom just a few days before, even though I was scared of getting pregnant. I’d also had sex in dirty public bathrooms during our lunch period on numerous occasions—all to prove my love. But I wasn’t going to do it this time, not while he was thinking of doing it with other girls. As I pulled away, I was crying and apologizing and telling him I loved him. I ran all the way home, heartbroken and miserable.
After we split, I realized that being with someone who controlled every facet of my life had robbed me of the ability to make my own decisions. I limited myself to random small amounts of food each day (I’d started doing this in the last few weeks of our relationship—what I ate was the one thing he couldn’t control) and played “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” over even the most insignificant choices, like what route to walk home from school. I felt like Ophelia, the “madwoman” in Hamlet—incoherent and utterly mindfucked after being dumped by the guy who was her entire universe.
About six months after the breakup, I signed up to do some volunteer at a domestic violence agency and was required to take a volunteer-training workshop in a church basement. When we reconvened after a lunch break, the volunteer coordinator told us to open our training binders to the Duluth Model and look at the “Power and Control Wheel” we would be using for reference:
I nearly threw up my juice and cookies. The “Power and Control Wheel” was basically a picture, in graph form, of my relationship with Greg. For example, under “Using Intimidation,” it says “destroying her propoerty.” I remembered the time Greg went through my closet to decide which of my clothes were “appropriate” to wear in public. When he found a shirt that didn’t meet his standards, he ripped it in half. An example under “Using Isolation” is “Controlling […] who she sees and talks to”; Greg had forbidden me from seeing my best friend while we were together. He had “made light of the abuse” (under “Minimizing, Denying, and Blaming”) when he had responded to my tears by scoffing, “It’s just a joke!” “Humiliating her”: check. “Threatening to commit suicide”: check. It was all there. The volunteer coordinator called all of these actions “abusive.” That was when my healing started.
That was 19 years ago. Today, I’m living in a city I love, doing work I love, and have been in a healthy relationship with a person I love for almost nine years. Flashbacks to Greg’s abuse are few and far between. This didn’t just happen on its own—it took a lot of work. Emotional work. Emotional work is about self-care, but it’s not always about pampering yourself. Emotional work is hard. It means being honest with yourself and taking care of yourself even when you don’t want to (after you’ve been through something traumatic, being self-destructive is often the easier way to deal with difficult feelings).
For trauma survivors, or people who deal with depression or anxiety, taking care of your heart and mind is one of the hardest—and most rewarding—jobs you’ll ever do. Everyone has their own (often long, often circuitous) path to emotional health, but here are some of the things I learned that helped me come to, and accept, the idea that emotional work is something I will have to continue doing for the rest of my life.
1. Self-doubt is one of the worst monsters you’ll face—and you’ll probably have to face it more than once.
A lot of the things that Greg did felt wrong at the time—especially the catcalling incident, being separated from my friends, and the coercive sex—but I loved and trusted him, so I convinced myself that I was wrong. I wasn’t upset because I was being abused, I decided—I was just “too sensitive” and didn’t know how to take a joke (both things, of course, that he had told me about myself).
After that volunteer workshop, I reached out to other members of an internet discussion group I was in—a bunch of teen girls from around the country who were making zines and discovering Riot Grrrl and feminism. “I think that maybe my ex-boyfriend was emotionally abusive,” I told them in an email, and I described some of the things Greg had done. These girls responded with kind, insightful, supportive responses. Many of these girls had experienced assault, abuse, and depression themselves. All of them affirmed my hunch about Greg: “Yes, that is abuse,” they wrote.
From there, I told my friends at school, started writing about it in my zines, and told my parents. It was hard. At first, I kept waiting to be blamed, because, deep down, I still blamed myself. I thought I’d been weak—that I was easy prey for Greg because I was depressed and had low self-esteem, and that I should have stood up for myself. But every time I told my story, the realer it felt to me, and the more able I was to see it from an outsider’s perspective. I felt sorry for the girl in the story. I was angry on her behalf, and I certainly didn’t blame her. I realized, finally, that my situation had nothing to do with being “weak” or “strong.” It had nothing to do with what I was like at all. It was about how Greg had behaved—none of the things he did were OK for anyone to do to another person. Telling my story over and over allowed me to step outside of my guilt and self-blame, to know what happened, and to understand that it wasn’t my fault.